Dust slides past my feet on the wind as we trudge through the wasteland. Both Essa and I are completely suited in anti-rad gear, and every step seems like we’re travelling on an alien planet.
Surrounding the main entrance to Central and the guard tower is nothing but dead earth; pale and wispy, patterned with the petrified remains of what were once majestic trees.
Off in the distance there is a hint of green; the Fresh-Air Compounds Elder Corp is building for the rich; areas enclosed with filtering glass so that only pure air can exist within. They look like massive snow globes, though I doubt I’ll ever see the inside of one.
Beside me, Essa huffs impatiently.
“Why didn’t we ask for a buggy or something? This wind is unreal,” she complains.
“And how are we supposed to remain hidden while driving a cart around?” I counter. Sweat is already building inside my suit. The hot sun glares at us, defying us for coming above ground.
Our plans are haphazard at best. We couldn’t let anyone know where we were going or why, and our search is going to be worse than trying to find a needle in a haystack; we have an entire world to explore.
But we trudge along, and soon enough Central Tower is no longer in sight; we are alone in the wild.
“Have you been up here before?” I ask. I motion for Essa to stop, to take a break beneath the shade of a massive rock. She shakes her head.
“No, I’ve only done VR Mods. I’m sure you’ve been up here like a hundred times,” she remarks. I burst out laughing despite myself.
“You think they let just anybody up here? It costs the Corp a fortune.” Seeing her hurt expression, I add, “I’ve only been up here once or twice, and never as far as we are now. The tower has too many defense features. Even the most feral of Harpies know they don’t stand a chance.”
The shade is glorious after the scorching walk, and the sun is finally starting to set. I’d forgotten how blistering the real sun is; underground the temperature is always perfect.
“Look at that,” Essa murmurs. I follow her gaze to the horizon. The sky is illuminated in pinks and reds and dusky purples. The colors explode and melt together; a tapestry of the death of the sun. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
“I guess we really can’t replicate everything,” I reply in a whisper.
We move onward, silent from nature’s embrace. My mind tumbles through thoughts and images: Tor, David, the Harpy I’d let live. Shards of guilt shoot through my stomach, but there is no such thing as going back to the past; I know that, at least.
Night is just starting to darken the sky when I hear it; the slightest of noises. I raise a hand to halt Essa in her place, and motion for her to keep quiet. I close my eyes to let the sounds travel to my ear.
There is the crackle of fire; something I’ve only heard once or twice in real life; the crunch of sand as feet dance through them; the whoosh of twirling fabric; the giggling of a small child, then the hushing back to near-silence.
I gesture in the direction of the sounds with my eyes, and Essa follows my lead. Ahead of us there is a rocky crag, and my senses tell me that the beings are beneath, half-hidden in the shelter of the rock.
Our suits make only the slightest of noise as we creep forward to the apex of the rocks. Just as the crackling of the fire becomes loud enough, we drop to the ground, crawling across sharp rocks and slimy algae.
My heart beats like crazy as we reach the tip of the rock. The scene is probably fifty feet below us, but my mind races as if it’s mere inches away.
A Harpy family.
They surround the fire, their wings hanging gracefully above them. The children are both girls, who wear twirling skirts as they dance about the fire. The father is garbed in a shaggy shirt and slacks, while the mother remains seated on the ground, skirt spread around her as she skins some meat that I hope to hell isn’t Human.
What the hell are they doing living so close to Central? And why is there just one family? All of our studies have shown Harpies to travel in large groups, with a hierarchy of alpha and beta males and females. This family is entirely different. They don’t look vicious; they look… happy.
For a moment it’s like I’m watching a vid-screen; a documentary about the idyllic life of nomad aliens on another planet.
But then Essa’s foot slips—only an inch—but I know the sound is enough to break the silence.
Immediately the mother Harpy snarls, and her face contorts to a wicked, ugly glower as her gaze searches for us.
“Let’s move,” I whisper.
My body takes over; no room for thought or speculation. We leap from the crag, gravel and rock spilling beneath us. Essa pulls out her pistols and as soon as she lands, aims for the father Harpy’s head.
Her first shot misses, but her second is dead on, burrowing into the forehead of the Harpy. His angry scowl remains as his body withers and crumbles into dust. The bullet cap clinks as it lands on a slab of granite.
On my end, I face the mother. Immediately it’s clear that she’s the leader of the family. She lunges for me, her gray wings shaking and her sharp teeth bared.
I dodge her attack, grabbing a dagger from my boot and lashing out at her, but I miss. She cackles as she glides just shy of my blade, and her wings lift her into the air.
A quick glance sideways confirms that one of the children is dead, and Essa is combating the other, chasing her across the dusty ground.
I sheath my dagger and pull out my crossbow from my back holster. I’ve only got one chance at this before she leaves her child behind and flies off into the night.
I steady my footing and nock a bolt. She darts back and forth, almost in a figure-eight fashion.
How am I going to do this?
But then her child cries out in fear, and for just a moment, the mother Harpy lets her guard down, eyes searching for her baby.
I take my chance and release the bolt. It sinks in just to the left of her heart. She wails once she realizes what has happened, and tries to pull the bolt out from her chest.
She’s too late, though. The poison from the bolt has already activated in her blood stream. Her cry is cut off as her body disintegrates, showering ash over us from the sky. I exhale in relief, then Essa’s voice sounds.
“Piper,” she says. I look over to her. The remaining Harpy child is in front of her, eyes wide with fear at the sight of her family’s deaths. She does not run or growl or attempt an attack. She cries. Tears run down her cheeks. Essa eyes me, showing me she’s completely unsure of what to do.
We both just stare at the child. I’ve never seen any Harpy—child or otherwise—cry before. Something like pity moves in my chest, but I know I’m not allowed to feel that.
But there is something I can do.
I walk toward her slowly, ready to strike even though all she does is stare at me with tear-filled eyes.
“Where are the others?” I ask simply. She whimpers, but Essa holds up a readied pistol. She’s old enough to know what that means.
“We left,” she replies. Her voice is light and soft, like cotton candy at a carnival.
“Why?” I continue.
“Mama and Papa don’t—didn’t—like them. We’re different from them.”
“Where are the others?” I repeat forcefully. She sobs, sniffles, then points east.
“That way. That’s where the others live. There are lots of them. Please let me go,” she says. She’s given us all of the information we need.
An encampment is set of east of the Harpy capital. I look at Essa, who returns my gaze pleadingly. She can’t do it. I can tell that much.
I sigh deeply, then rush up to the girl, snapping her neck. I know she’ll only be unconscious for seconds, so I whip out my dagger and slit her throat. She fades away in my arms, her dust carried away by the wind.
After that, there is only silence beyond the crackling fire. I answer before Essa has a chance to ask.
“She didn’t feel anything. She was unconscious.” Still, Essa shivers, holding herself.
“I couldn’t do it. I’m sorry, it was just the look in her eyes,” she murmurs. I stand up and place a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“It’s never easy to kill a child. Even a Harpling,” I confide. She nods as we gather ourselves for the night, but her gaze remains far off into the night sky.
“We’ll sleep here tonight. You take first watch. You never know if there were others,” I say.
I leave Essa to her thoughts as I lie down beside the fire. Secretly, those young eyes are still staring at me, still pleading for me to let her live.
I fall asleep with her delicate voice just bouncing around through my mind.